This article originally appeared on VICE India.
On Monday, December 9, tempers flared during a particularly heated winter session of the parliament. Voices were raised and arguments were made, all regarding the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), a proposed law that would essentially allow illegal immigrants who have faced persecution as minorities in neighbouring nations to gain Indian citizenship. Which may sound all cool and inclusive on the surface if it wasn’t for one gaping hole in its provisions. While the bill says that any Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist or Christian who came to India before December 31, 2014 after discrimination in the neighbouring regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh can take up Indian citizenship, it very blatantly leaves out the entire Muslim community.
As per the bill, “on and from the date of commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, any proceeding pending against a person under this section in respect of illegal migration or citizenship shall stand abated on conferment of citizenship to him.” This bill would essentially also exclude other minorities like the Tamils from Sri Lanka and the Tibetans from China, but perhaps the most prominent exclusion is of Muslims, including Rohingya refugees.
“Muslim population in India has increased from 9.8 percent in 1951 to 14.8 percent in 2011 while the Hindu population has decreased from 84 percent in 1951 to 79 percent in 2011,” said Union Home Minister Amit Shah, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwart, during the seven-hour long parliament session that debated the controversial bill. “Whereas, the minority population in Pakistan has decreased from 23 percent in 1947 to 3.7 percent in 2011. Similarly, the minority population in Bangladesh has decreased from 22 percent in 1947 to 7 percent in 2011,” assuring everyone that obviously the Modi government would not exclude citizens based on their religions. People are pretty worried about the long-lasting effects something like this could have on the country, and are thus reacting in the following ways.
Calling the bill anti-Muslim and saying it could lead to another partition
Critics are quick to point out that if the purpose of the bill was to fight the persecution of minorities in the neighbouring countries, it wouldn’t strictly say that Rohingya Muslims, acknowledged as one of the most persecuted groups in the world, were not welcome. And even as 311 members of the Lok Sabha voted in favour of this eyebrow-raising bill, Opposition leaders Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Saugata Roy, N K Premchandran, Gaurav Gogoi, Shashi Tharoor and Asaduddin Owaisi opposed the introduction of the bill, saying it went against provisions in the Constitution because it was seeking to grant citizenship on the basis of religion. In fact, Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, tore up the piece of proposed legislation to stress how fiercely he opposed the bill that he feared would essentially leave Muslims “stateless” and prompt another devastating partition that would leave the Indian community more divided than ever.
Calling for protests and strikes that shut down normal functioning, especially in the Northeast
Right after the Lok Sabha—the lower house of the parliament in which the BJP party enjoys majority—passed the bill, a bandh or strike was declared in six Northeastern states with influential student groups calling for all the normal functioning of the state to be ceased. Protestors took to the streets, blocked roads, burnt tyres and literally painted the town red with slogans that stressed how bad the bill would be for the community. “Our demands are three-fold: first, we totally oppose the CAB, second, we demand the granting of Scheduled Tribe status as promised to six communities and third, all provisions of the Assam Accord of 1985 be immediately implemented,” said Arunjyoti Moran, president of the All Moran Students Union, one of the student organisations that called for a 48-hour strike in Assam.
These protests mirror previous ones that took place over the same issue in 2016, that ultimately prevented the bill from being enacted back then. However, sources point out that this bill may be a way for the BJP government to retain the citizenship of the Bengali Hindus, a major voter base for the party, after many of them were excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that came out in August. However, in its revised form, the bill clarifies that the amendments will not be applicable to regions in the North East protected by the Inner Line Permit and Sixth Schedule provisions, which includes Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, most parts of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura, and certain pockets of Assam, and only leaves out Manipur from availing the exemption. Meanwhile, people in states like Delhi, Gujarat and Kolkata also took to the streets to call out the controversial bill from going against the constitutional rights given to every religion.
Declaring it unconstitutional and unsecular
Over a thousand scientists and scholars wrote an open letter calling for the urgent withdrawal of a bill they believe can only further foster communalism. In the letter, they said that while the effort to protect persecuted minorities is appreciated, they continue to “find it deeply troubling that the Bill uses religion as a legal criterion for determining Indian citizenship". The scholars who signed this include Sandip Trivedi, the director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai; Rajesh Gopakumar who heads the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences in Bengaluru; and Atish Dabholkar from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy, along with other intellectuals and professors of respected institutes like IIT.
At the same time, the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, a federal body that aims to protect the rights of religious communities, said that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is a "dangerous turn in wrong direction" and said that American sanctions would be sought against Home Minister Amit Shah if the bill was to be passed by both houses of the Indian Parliament. However, the Ministry of External Affairs responded to this threat by saying it was “neither accurate nor warranted” and continues to insist that this bill has no intention of stripping away citizenship on the basis of religion.
Meanwhile, Amit Shah continues to assert that the bill has the "endorsement of 130 crore (1.3 billion) Indian citizens" and has rejected suggestions that the measure is anti-Muslims since it gives rights to persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. In fact, when asked why the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill did not include Modi, Shah said that since all three countries were Islamic, the Muslims were obviously not be among the persecuted, soon after which he assured people that the Modi government did not discriminate based on religion or consider Muslims to be second-class citizens. He also specifically mentioned that this was merely a precursor paving the way for something that will probably be even more controversial: a nation-wide NRC.
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